My first hard look at the Friendship 53 Songtao revealed her broad, curving transom, and it literally stopped me in my tracks. I was descending a long gangplank in a Greenwich, Connecticut, marina to the dock to which John and Marcy Golden’s exquisite 53-footer was secured. The boat was bound for the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, and I’d arranged with John to help deliver Songtao as far as Cape May, New Jersey, via New York City. Judging from the rooftop flags snapping crisply in a bracing October northwesterly, it had the makings of a fast, lively trip.
But before we went anywhere, I found myself lock-kneed on the pier staring at that remarkable counter stern. The arc of its artful, rounded contour was stunning in itself, but the way in which it harmonized with the yacht’s overall appearance-in particular, with its seamless and perfect transition to the sweet, low sheer line and the gentle tumblehome-was downright mesmerizing. A week later in Annapolis, I’d happen upon Ted Fontaine, the naval architect whose life’s work led to the creation of those unforgettable lines, and I mentioned to him the paralyzing effect they’d had on me.
Fontaine smiled. “She’s got a good shape to her, doesn’t she?” he said, in what I considered a fair bit of understatement.
Yes, the sappy signature line from the movie Jerry Maguire has become a bit of a cliché, but there’s no other way to put it: The Friendship 53 had me at hello.
From the outset of the voyage, it was abundantly clear that John and Marcy Golden were accomplished sailors with plenty of sea miles behind them and that they were well-versed in operating as a quiet, confident, and efficient pair. The aftermath of an overnight cold front was the aforementioned nor’wester, which had Songtao pinned firmly to her berth. With other boats stationed fore and aft, there was precious little room in which to work, but with one hand on the throttle for the 75-horsepower Volvo saildrive (spinning a sizable 20-inch, four-bladed feathering prop) and one shoe on the foot controls for the Lewmar six-kilowatt bow thruster, John extricated Songtao from her confines and into the open channel with ease.
Before Songtao-Marcy had long been enamored of the name, which translates roughly to the pleasing sound that wind makes as it rustles through pine trees-the Goldens had owned several cruising boats; the last two were a Little Harbor 42 followed by a Little Harbor 50. The Little Harbor line, of course, was the brand produced and fostered by the legendary designer Ted Hood; the Goldens’ LH 42, in fact, had belonged to Hood, one of a long line of boats he named Robin. Central to the telling of this tale, the couple, during their ownership of the Little Harbors, met and became friends with Hood’s young protégé, one Ted Fontaine, forging a bond that would ultimately lead to the commission of Songtao.
On our delivery south, the fourth member of the crew was another family friend, Wayne Johnson, a nautical jack-of-all-trades who happens to be a professional storyteller, making him doubly useful aboard. Working in tandem, crossing notes with the paper charts and the cockpit-mounted repeater for the Furuno Navnet chart plotter, John and Wayne laid out and confirmed a course into and through Long Island Sound to Hell Gate, the gateway to New York Harbor, which they’d timed to reach at slack water.
There was a bit of a seaway building in the sound, and cold spray began flying as Songtao cleaved her way through, which she did effortlessly and purposefully, trucking along at more than six knots with the engine turning over at an efficient 1,800 rpm and bucking the last of an incoming tide. Under the enclosed dodger, with its generous attached bimini and zip-in side curtains, it wasn’t only strangely quiet, with conversation conducted at normal volume; it was also decidedly toasty. Soon enough, though, as we slightly altered course for the city, the on-the-nose headwind freed a bit, and John reckoned we could hold a nice, tight reach under sail. I zippered my collar and prepared to engage the elements.
Um, not so fast there, Trigger.
At the helm, Marcy swung the bow slowly into the breeze and John hoisted the in-boom, fully-battened Leisure Furl main about two-thirds of the way up the towering, 77-foot, triple-spreader carbon-fiber spar via an electric, coachroof-mounted halyard winch. The hydraulically controlled mainsheet was sheeted home with a tap of Marcy’s toe to the foot pedals directly abaft the wheel. Another foot control engaged the robust Reckman furler on which the high-clewed yankee jib was rolled. After a modest portion was automatically unfurled, John quickly trimmed the sail with one of the primary self-tailing Lewmar electric sheet winches. Almost instantly, Songtao was happily sliding along at seven knots.
“She’s really nice and balanced,” said Wayne as we slid along.
“Pushbutton yachting at its finest,” said John with a smile. The skyline of Manhattan lay just ahead.
It was up the coast a ways, in the less renowned U.S. East Coast port of New Bedford, in Massachusetts, where Ted Fontaine started learning his ropes. His dad was a member of a local institution in the south end, the Low Tide Yacht Club, and at one point the family fleet included three Beetle Cats, a Rhodes 19, an Ensign, and a Laser. By his teens, young Ted, one of nine kids, had become especially proficient with that Laser, which he raced competitively both locally and nationally. Sailing was in his blood, a gift from his yachting father.
Decades later, after he’d become well-established as a successful naval architect, he lived for a while in the nearby coastal village of Padanaram, a section of South Dartmouth that was close to his childhood roots. On many mornings, he’d hop aboard his powerboat for an early session of fly-fishing in the nearby Elizabeth Islands, and on the way back home across Buzzards Bay, he always passed a weathered Friendship sloop-a classic Maine workboat, an unadorned throwback to a bygone era.
“It was a pretty old, beat-up thing,” he said. “But the shape of it-the sheer line, the curvature of the transom. It was shallow draft, and it had a small cabin house that kind of bent around. That’s something that could be done again with a little bit of class, I thought, a little bit of finesse. The shapes were all there.”
So this, as much as anything, is a New England story. And that’s underscored by what happened in those intervening years, between the time a cocky teenage sailing hotshot became a grown man who was awestruck, as I was, by the arresting grace and simple beauty of a bobbing, floating object. For it was in that middling period that Fontaine apprenticed with, then became a working partner of one of the great Yankee icons in American sailing and boatbuilding, Ted Hood.
“We developed a pretty good relationship over time,” said Fontaine. “We were good at arguing things out. I learned so much from him. I got so much experience: how to deal with customers, how to develop an overall program for a design.”
The Little Harbor formula-Ted Hood’s formula-rarely wavered. He favored heavy-displacement, high-volume boats with centerboards that fulfilled a dual purpose, providing shoal, inshore access when raised, then becoming, when deployed, a deep, powerful blade for offshore work. And while the words “heavy” and “fast” have become incongruous terms for many contemporary yacht designers, Hood’s Little Harbors all had a couple of indisputable traits in common. They were traditionally handsome vessels-as he became more experienced, Fontaine became more responsible for the aesthetics of the designs, which he feels plays to his strengths-that sailed exceedingly well.
“Ted Hood’s empirical view was simple,” explained Fontaine, “If it looks right, it is right.”
Fontaine started as a draftsman and eventually became involved with the design office’s development and project management of a string of larger vessels over 100 feet that were being built in various yards around the world. Ultimately, Hood sold his business to the Hinckley Company, a move that would open the door for Fontaine to set out on his own, taking with him several 100-foot-plus projects that were already under way.
Before leaving Hinckley, however, he began developing a sailing equivalent of the company’s popular Picnic Boat; Fontaine’s design was inspired in no small part from the Friendship sloop he’d seen in Padanaram a few years earlier. It was essentially a large daysailer with a big cockpit for entertaining and basic accommodations for a couple’s weekend retreat. Hinckley, and other builders, decided to take a pass, but Fontaine found a buyer, and then a builder in New Zealand, and pursued the project on his own.
That boat became the Friendship 40 and the foundation of the Friendship Yacht Company, with 17 of them having been sold to date. John Golden saw one of the early ones, and almost immediately he had a question for Fontaine.
“Could we do something a little bit bigger?” he wondered.
Transiting the canyons of New York from the deck of a small boat is an experience that every sailor should relish at least once in his or her lifetime. Despite the conditions, or perhaps because of them, our passage aboard Songtao was turning out to be special.
By the time we passed beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, we’d doused sail in the congested waters but were still soaring along at nine knots, aided by a favorable current of nearly two knots. Around the corner from Governor’s Island, we again pressed on a shortened sail plan, and after slipping under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the last before gaining the open Atlantic, Wayne had Songtao up to 11 knots as recorded on the GPS in about 25 knots of breeze. John had dropped the centerboard a tad-another finger, another button-and it was magical sailing. The smooth, flat wake, in close association with the locked-in bubble of our quarter wave, provided yet another transfixing image.
The only unsettling moment, and it was brief, was when I took the helm while motoring off Manhattan. I switched off the Simrad autopilot and was startled when the wheel threw itself hard to starboard, almost taking me with it. I asked Fontaine about it later; he acknowledged the issue and seemed genuinely stumped. “That’s a tricky one,” he said, while surmising that the inclusion of the diesel’s saildrive unit is a double-edged sword. On one hand, its economy of space and easy installation is alluring; on the other, it generates maximum prop thrust at “the widest, biggest, meatiest part of the rudder,” providing dramatic loads on the helm under power. For now, at least, he’d concluded that the upside outweighed the downside in the design.
All that was forgotten while beam-reaching down the Jersey shore that brisk fall evening, again on autopilot, as Marcy served a lovely sit-down dinner in the cozy cockpit and the miles ticked away. Wayne regaled us with a whimsical selection of his witty yarns, and the overnight watches passed swiftly, uneventfully, and in total comfort. By 10 the next morning, we were tied up in Cape May, and I was bound for a bus, cursing myself for my usual lack of foresight. It would’ve been fun to just keep going.
While the Friendship story certainly has its roots in New England, it’s also, as it turns out, a Kiwi tale. The Goldens had originally hoped to build the 53 in Maine, closer to home, with a subcontractor if necessary. “I was dead set against New Zealand,” said John. “But Ted impressed upon me the desire to keep consistency in the brand.”
In the end, John paid half a dozen visits to the Bay of Islands facility, formerly known as the Austral boatyard, but now the dedicated builder of the Friendships. (A 76-footer, due to launch this fall, is currently under way, and a 46-foot version is ready to go.) He said that the trips to see the progress on Songtao added an invaluable, indelible aspect to the entire experience.
“Making a trip to New Zealand at a milestone stage of the project is something people plan and look forward to,” said Fontaine. “And the first time they get there, they’re blown away. The stuff you see, the air you breathe: It’s unique. Plus, when the dollar’s strong, it’s a real advantageous place to build. The cost is probably 60 percent of what you’d pay for a custom order in Maine. And if you’re lucky enough to have a boat that’s finished between November and April, you can go cruise the Bay of Islands before shipping it home.”
The other key Kiwi element in the construction of the Friendship 53 is the Auckland-based composite-engineering company High Modulus, which fabricates the boat’s pre-cut panels of biaxial, unidirectional, and double-biaxial fiberglass mat and Corecell closed foam. The foam core is employed in the structural bulkheads, for weight savings, as well as in the deck and the hull, where four different densities are specified in the pre-impregnated, hand-laid structure. About three feet below the waterline, the layup becomes solid glass, which also encapsulates the keel’s lead ballast, which terminates in a Scheel-type bulb.
What all that means is that the striking teak interior aboard Songtao-the Goldens, who generally sail by themselves as a couple, chose a layout that reflects this sailing style, with a big stateroom forward, an expansive navigation station and gourmet galley to starboard, and guest quarters to port-was engineered and fashioned to maximize performance, in an old-school sort of way.
In that regard, though the look and style is markedly different, it sort of sounds like an updated Little Harbor.
“The construction is a little more high-tech,” said Fontaine. “The carbon-fiber mast might be worth a couple of feet on the rig. Those foam-core bulkheads (and other weight-saving laminates) take a couple of thousand pounds out of the interior, and that goes down in the lead. So it’s all about horsepower and drag. We’ve got a big rig for horsepower and a lot of ballast for stability. That translates to a bit more speed. It’s just a philosophy that’s different from what most people are doing these days, but it works for the products we design.
“The hull shapes I learned from Ted Hood try to minimize wetted surface,” he concluded. “I had 20 years of mentoring under him. A lot of things he did really well. Some things I thought I could do better.”
With the Friendship 53, the student is well and truly beyond the shadow of the teacher. But step aboard and go sailing, and you’d have to think that the teacher would be rather proud.
Herb McCormick is a CW editor at large.
LOA 52′ 10″ (16.10 m.)
LWL 39′ 4″ (11.99 m.)
Beam 15′ 1″ (4.60 m.)
Draft (board down) 12′ 2″ (3.71 m.)
(board up) 5′ 9″ (1.75 m.)
Sail Area 1,500 sq. ft. (139 sq. m.)
Ballast 18,000 lb. (8,165 kg.)
Displacement 44,700 lb. (20,275 kg.)
Water 280 gal. (1,060 l.)
Fuel 140 gal. (530 l.)
Mast Height 77′ 0″ (23.47 m.)
Engine 78-hp. Volvo
Designer Ted Fontaine
Friendship Yacht Company